So, back to the warmth of Liberia once again; I am hoping it’s third time lucky and we’ll soon be driving, not flying, out.
The main difference in the year or so that has passed since we left Liberia the first time, in July 2014, is that my daughter has morphed from 12 to 14 years old, from 5ft 4′ to 5ft 9′ and from a size 10 to size 14. We left with a girl and returned with an Amazon. How right we were to seize precious time with our children when they were both small enough to fit comfortably in the truck. That time has almost gone. I’m jealously hoarding the dregs.
The Immigration official at Roberts International Airport in Monrovia who checked our passports nodded at Ruby and said “A fine woman”, smacking his lips approvingly round the vowels. There was more nodding from the man who looked her up and down as he helped us get our bags off the carousel. “Eeek,” I thought, “I’m not sure I’m ready for this”.
Ah, but the consolation of lush and lovely Liberiahhhhhh. It felt so relaxing to be here. The last couple of weeks before leaving had been so hectic, that the two days and four flights to get back to Monrovia, including 12 hours in Accra airport where we slept on the floor, seemed like a holiday in comparison. Despite the potholes, the gridlock and the power cuts (3 times in the first hour on arrival), I felt so much calmer being back here, my horizon empty, my purpose clear.
The only negative aspect to all this gorgeous green was the intensity of the rain. We had timed our return for the end of the wet season to ease our passage onwards but it rained almost ceaselessly for the first 24 hours. From the plane, I had seen huge puddles in the fields, and the parlous state of the roads. Traditionally, the big rains cease after 15th October, but at the end of the month it was still tipping down two or three times a day. Will climate change delay our progress to Sierra Leone?
Big Reg was sitting waiting for us at the enormous Alliance Motors garage in Clara Town, Monrovia. Alliance is part of the Tractafric group who’ve helped us across West Africa and specialises in Ford, VW and Mitsubishi as well as Mercedes vehicles. CEO Mr George Haddad is of Lebanese heritage with a management team including Syrians, Indians and Mauritanians. Laxman, the boss of the section Sampson was assigned to, is from Jaipur. Sampson cannot speak highly enough of the support Mr Haddad and his international team gave in the three weeks he spent at Alliance fixing up the truck for the road ahead.
The Alliance team carried out a full service and oil change, along with an enormous amount of repairs. Having sat through two rainy seasons now, Big Reg’s bodywork was covered in rust and they filled dozens of holes with fibreglass. They ripped off the rotten wooden roof and replaced it with aluminium, fixed the roof box, replaced the hinges and customised missing metal caps for two fuel tanks.They fixed the exhaust brake, adjusted the brakes, greased the nipples, added coolant to the radiator, welded the bumper back on and fitted an air horn. They even fixed the bonnet clips, so it now closes properly rather than being tied on with rope as it has been since Angola!
In the meantime, Sampson was waterproofing the roof, for the umpteenth time, with silicone and flash band. He would like to give special thanks to chief mechanic Isac Loue from Côte d’Ivoire, an expert so willing to share his knowledge, and another Ivorien, workshop manager Akya Asse, a true gentleman with a wonderful sense of humour who made every day a pleasure to be there. Sampson would also like to give a special mention to the glamourous head of accounts, Caroline Kun, who gave him a lift to work many mornings.
Check this video for an example of the sometimes slippery challenges mechanics at Alliance experience on a daily basis, in their workshop next to the sea…
Back to school
We’ve been getting back into the homeschool groove. While Sampson has to leave between 6 and 7am to beat the traffic across the city, we go for a quick walk, either meandering though lanes behind the compound while the shade lasts or crossing the heaving highway down to the beach to do T’ai Chi and have a quick dip. If the kids sleep too late and it’s too hot to go, Zola is bouncing off the walls by lunchtime and I have to send him outside to run off some energy up and down the stairs.
Walking with Ruby down Tubman Boulevard in Monrovia is a bit like I imagine it must be like walking down Sunset Boulevard in LA with Scarlett Johannson. Zola and I are invisible. Teenage boys have eyes for nothing else; they practically whimper if she smiles at them.
We encounter a fabulous array of school uniforms: a royal blue and sunshine yellow combo, pink and brown, an assortment of gingham with heavily pleated polyester skirts. My favourite is a bottle green pinafore with red and white piping around the sailor suit collar and matching red ankle socks. Super cute, if unbearably sweat-inducing.
Some days we have to have a discussion with someone who wants to charge us for entering the portal to the beach, but by the time I’ve given them a long list of all the countries we’ve been through without paying to go to the beach, they’ve usually given up the will to argue with me about it and wave us on good-naturedly.
I was a bit gung-ho the first week here and dived into a dodgy sea full of sewage even though I’d forgotten to bring my earplugs. Within 24 hours, I had an infection and started putting drops in my ear. In the middle of the night I got up to find my face had swollen so much, I looked like an extra from the Thriller video and had to resort to antibiotics to nail it. It’s another reminder of how lucky we are in Cape Town to have the municipality committed to keeping our beaches and sea (relatively) clean.
Soundbites from Monrovia no.1
I am delighted by Liberian radio. Radio Monrovia 92.1FM has a civic education programme every afternoon from 3-5pm where a gravelly-voiced elder elucidates matters of local history, geography and government for students. His courtly tones make me feel like I’m listening to a costume drama set in nineteenth century America; you could imagine him being played by James Earl Jones in a wig.
This week – in between telling off his young listeners for their lazy mispronunciation “Lib’reah” for the name of their proud country – the professor expounded on how Monrovia was named after James Monroe, the fifth president of the United States. Monroe supported the American Colonization Society’s effort to fund transport to West Africa for the 13 000 freed slaves who founded Liberia. (Not from any altruistic motive, I hasten to add; Monroe was a slave owner who didn’t want bondsmen on his Virginia plantation to be encouraged to rebel by the emancipated north.)
While talking about population figures (currently 4.5 million), the professor digressed into explaining how Liberia has a reputation as an asylum for Africans seeking haven, back from when the great Mali and Songhai empires to the West collapsed between 14th-16th century. From the east he pointed to the migration of the Bassa people, evidenced in nomenclature from Mombasa in Kenya through Cameroon and Nigeria to Grand Bassam in Côte d’Ivoire (where Ruby rode a horse on the beach) to Grand Bassa province here. Therefore Liberian Bassa people are not strictly indigenous because “all Liberian tribes are immigrants from somewhere”.
He went on to speak of a tradition that should have helped with the management of the Ebola pandemic: how a stranger could not come to a village and sleep there without being introduced to the chief and elders. Thus, the first person to come across a stranger became the “Stranger Father” i.e. responsible for the stranger during his stay and held accountable both for his comfort and his conduct. The professor’s opinion was that, had such a custom prevailed in the north of the country when Ebola arrived from Guinea, the authorities would have been able to track the progress of the disease more closely and the situation wouldn’t have got so out of hand.
He cast Liberia itself in the role of Stranger Father to all the people who have arrived there over the centuries. It is true I have been struck once again by how welcoming Liberians are, how proud they are both of their ‘land of the free’ and their hospitable traditions.
Snapshots from Monrovia no.1
Sampson got a lift back from the garage one day with Osman from Mali. He is 25, French-speaking and has been working as a motorcycle taxi driver for 4 months. He doesn’t own the scooter but pays R400 daily for the hire and insurance; he also has to pay for petrol, so he only earns R200 a day, for a 12-16 hour shift. He takes Sundays off. Through the wet season it’s a risky job, driving a like a slalom racer between puddles, and he says he prays all the time to stay alive.
Osman sends half his wages, $200 (R3000) a month, home to his mother to support his younger siblings and he’s already saved enough to buy 6 cows back in Mali. He’s also paying to learn Islamic Studies at night school. Oh, and 4-5 times a week he has to pay $1 ‘pass go’ bribes to police. Hard ways to earn a living…
The kindness of strangers
The day we arrived in Monrovia, in late July 2014, and drove through pouring rain across the city looking for the SA Embassy to get advice on progress of the Ebola pandemic, Counsellor Sean Pike was the first person to greet us. He ushered us into his office, in that understated manner of his, and proceeded to reassure us and smooth our way (including getting our washing done in his machine before the kids and I left for airport 24 hours later). He’s been doing it ever since.
For a month we have been staying as guests at ‘Hotel Pike’ and Sean hasn’t allowed us to contribute a single dollar to the groceries bill. He’s taken us out for meals, treated Sampson and the kids to numberless pizzas and funded Ruby’s copious baking experiments. He even sneakily paid the costs of getting our Liberian visas extended. He didn’t complain when Sampson broke his car last time nor this time when Ruby broke his window. I have absolutely no idea how we would have survived this entire hiatus period without him. Next to Tractafric, he is without doubt the most important and committed sponsor we have had on this trip so far, and I would like to pay tribute to our Stranger Father Sean who has paid dearly for both our comfort and our conduct, and whose boundless kindness we can never hope to repay.
It was an honour to be invited to watch the nail-biting Rugby World Cup semi-final between South Africa and the All Blacks with SA Embassy staff including newly arrived Ambassador V. P. Moodley. The match was ultimately disappointing, but the company made up for it.
The party continued afterwards at Sean’s, where we were joined by 2nd Secretary Amandla, Ruby’s style icon.
Sampson got picked up hitchhiking by the fulsomely enthusiastic Joseph Akorli of Semevo Construction Inc., who was delighted to hear where he was from and spent the long journey stuck in traffic raving about the kindness shown to him in South Africa when he was running a business from Ghana during Liberia’s civil wars. He wanted to pay it back so he offered to lend Sampson a car! How’s that for a humbling opposite of xenophobia?
Back at the beach
The kids and I met a guy training at the beach who was sprinting up and down between sticks and doing sit-ups as we sweated just wrestling our shorts off to dip in the sea. He turned out to be a Premier League soccer player called Joshua Williams who plays for Fassell FC but has dreams of moving to the South African league. He came to see the truck a couple of days later and told me he’d got a transfer to Egypt – hope to see you there Joshua!
It’s so bloody hot, I chopped my hair. It’s much happier in this climate, as I am, and has gone curly again. So I’ve gone from looking like Julianne Moore in the Hunger Games back to St Vincent.
At the beach I was also blessed to meet Prince, who had hip little dreads and an arresting smile. He’d been jogging with a friend, and they both dived in next to us, laughing. Prince is a hairdresser and our long conversation started with his admiration for Lucky Dube and moved through Liberia’s recent past and back again. Prince ran away from the second civil war in 2002 when he was in his teens and fled to Côte d’Ivoire.
The large community of Liberians sheltering there were considered “war veterans” by Ivorian president Laurent Gbagbo and many were forcibly conscripted into his army. Prince was taken to a training camp where he was so frightened he begged God to save him if it was His will. He said the General’s wife took a shine to him, began to treat him as “her brother” and this allowed him to escape active service. He dedicated himself to the service of God from that time.
Prince said he saw things that no one should see – he mentioned an incident when a pregnant woman was slaughtered in front of him – and that he had flashbacks for years. But he insisted Liberians must look forward now, actively choose peace and be prepared to work hard to regain prosperity. He spoke of his “female president” Mrs Johnson Sirleaf with pride and enthusiasm; I told him he was so positive and inspiring, he should be running for office himself.